I went to a Chinese New Year’s bash that the Hong Kong government put on last night in Manhattan and, amid the tinkle of champagne glasses, got a dose of what Hong Kong and China are thinking about President Trump. The new president has named Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as his new ambassador to China and that’s a credible choice because Branstad has some experience with the Chinese. But an ambassador alone does not make for a systematic pattern of engagement. So far Trump has not appointed a single person to his Cabinet who has China expertise. There is no one on point.
“It’s a bid odd because he made China his No. 1 hate spot during the campaign,” said one diplomat.
If Trump does not create a credible China-facing body of experts, the Chinese are still going to find a way into his administration.
One angle is Elaine Chou, who was born in Taiwan to a father who ran a shipping business and dealt with the Chinese leadership, including Vice Premier Zhu Rongqi. Chou served previously as secretary of labor and now she’s been sworn in as secretary of transportation. She happens to be married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. As Chinese diplomats and journalists explained to me, she might be a key conduit between the PRC and the Trump Administration.
But it would all be unofficial and behind closed doors. There would not be much sunshine in the corridors of power if it happens that way.
The Chinese also know that Trump invited his daughter Ivanka to sit in on a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Abe. The implication was clear: you help Ivanka with her business dealings in Japan and you’ll have a channel into Trump. I don’t have independent confirmation, but the Chinese say that Ivanka’s business in Japan is growing quickly. And Trump apparently mentioned that his daughter thought highly of Abe in a subsequent telephone conversation. Look for members of the Trump family to start showing up in China.
If Trump completely lacks any idea of how to officially engage with the Chinese, as it appears, different patterns of relationships and channels are going to develop. And the risk is that they could be fundamentally corrupt. But that doesn’t bother the Chinese at all. They understand that type of game.